In February of 2015 my wife suffered what was later diagnosed as a minor stroke. She experienced loss of feeling, weakness, a drooping eye, loss of fine motor skills, and she forgot many words. She was still going but had definitely experienced some sort of breakdown. After time, even though the physical effects of the stroke had supposedly subsided, Annabel was still unable to walk or write well. Consultants came and went, each with slightly different opinions. The diagnosis that stuck, or at least that we found most interesting, was Functional Neurological Deficit.

Functional Neurological Deficit is an umbrella term for a series of symptoms that despite their appearance are hard to define psychologically or physically. They are often linked with stress or earlier trauma.

The professor who diagnosed Annabel described it as a difficulty of communication between brain and body. He used the analogy of the spinning ball on the computer when a piece of software hangs; the brain was working fine but it wasn’t yet able to execute its commands.

Annabel’s treatment consisted of a form of physiotherapy that would help her brain remake its connections and stop her thinking too hard about locomotion. She was instructed to walk backwards to carry awkward objects and to imagine strings held her up. This was all intended to engage her conscious mind and to allow her unconscious to get on with the job.

Often I would hold Annabel’s strings for her, she would walk down a corridor, me behind her, holding her head by an invisible thread. Humans, puppets and robots are closely connected. In film, puppetry is one of the methods used to bring a robot to life. Within science fiction narratives, the severing of connections, the cutting of strings, is one of the main ways in which the robot is defeated.

One of the physiotherapy exercises Annabel performs is a form of face puppetry. She has to imagine an invisible thread running from the tip of her finger to the corner of her lips or cheek or eyebrow. She lifts a finger and her lip curls.

In Stepford Wives, 1975 a robot is damaged, in a car accident. It continues to function, chatting at a garden party, but it’s interactions become awkward disconnected, repetitive (all Shibboleths of robot kind). Part of the horror and humour of the scene comes from our realisation that we are looking at a machine, not a woman, but there is still something very human about its/her breakdown.

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